Mobile phones are as ubiquitous as hard hats and muddy boots these days. But a new generation using WAP technology is set to extend their role and introduce the m-commerce era.

The construction industry may not always be first in the queue to sign up for new technology, but there is one modern invention it has been quick to adopt: the mobile phone. On sites from Edinburgh to Exeter, everyone from ground-workers to site managers can be seen clutching Nokias to their ears. At the moment, mobiles are used for chasing up deliveries or quick calls home, but it might not be long before they are being used to e-mail documents and send drawings to head office. Soon, the technology will be available to allow anything that can be handled on a networked PC to be handled by a mobile phone. Welcome to m-commerce, the latest technology buzzword and successor to e-commerce.

Earlier this year, the government auctioned the licences to run what are known as third generation mobile phones. These incorporate wireless application protocol, or WAP, technology that allows multimedia information to be transmitted instantly and easily to a mobile. The handsets will not be available until 2001, but when they are, it will be possible to use them to connect to the Internet and to intranets, as well as for services such as e-mail.

For construction, this means being able to send complicated drawings, schedules of rates or delivery dockets from the remotest of sites to the firm’s headquarters and back again, using a mobile device similar to a palmtop but with a phone built in. The advantages are numerous. For instance, delivery dockets can be entered straight into the mobile and from there into head office accounts instead of hanging around in site cabins. “M-commerce is not widely used at the moment, but it will be by sales people working in the field and by anyone else who needs to get out and about,” says Andrew Stirling, manager in the telecommunications, information technology media and electronics division of consultant Arthur D Little.

Contracting and facilities management firm Jarvis has been quick to catch on to the potential and has invested £15m in the infrastructure to support m-commerce when the time comes. Jarvis estimates that, once the technology is in place, it will cut the cost of processing an invoice from £20 to £2. “The extensive use of WAP-enabled hand-held devices is a few months away, but we have always said we are on a WAP watch for a few months to wait for the infrastructure to catch up,” says Mike Manisty, IT and communications manager at Jarvis, who is in charge of implementing the new technology.

Another firm bidding to get ahead of the game is Caradon Plumbing Services. Caradon has decided to start with simple transactions using second-generation mobile phones that allow communication through text messaging. The firm wants to build closer relationships with the plumbers who install its products, and has joined forces with, the Internet site that finds vetted builders for consumers, to test the viability of text-messaging installers when there is a job that needs doing. “A consumer wants her bathroom redecorated, so she contacts Improveline, which sends a text message to a plumber. Even if the plumber is under a sink somewhere, if he is interested he can get full details of the job and make a decision whether to take it,” says Gordon MacSween, e-commerce director at Caradon Plumbing Services.

Caradon and Jarvis have bitten the bullet early because, as MacSween says, “the Internet wasn’t useful two or three years ago, and in retrospect, we should have got involved earlier”.

Even firms that are waiting for the technology to become more available realise its potential. Building surveyor Ridge and Partners is no stranger to IT. It pioneered the use of voice-recognition software to cut down on the need for reports to be typed up from dictation machines. One of the firm’s partners is positive that it will be exploiting m-commerce. “We will adopt it in various forms,” says Phil Jones. “A lot of people are taking laptops out on site but these aren’t as flexible and are a bit of a pain in the neck to lug about. I can see them being replaced by the mobile.”

As with all IT, the drawback lies in the fact that WAP technology is so fast-moving. The construction industry has barely got to grips with e-commerce, and may take some time to understand the potential of electronic information handled by mobile phone. And, as Jarvis’ Stirling points out: “Other technology may overtake WAP. It’s early days and difficult to say whether WAP has a long life or is a stop-gap.” What is apparent now, however, is that mobile communications make perfect sense for an industry where being away from the office is a fact of life.

Generation Gap

There are several generations of mobile phones. The ones in general use now are known as second generation. These can be used to send short text messages and can support software for business purposes. They are still quite slow and the screen is small, so only the briefest pieces of information can be viewed. The next stage is the generation 2.5 phone. This functions on a general packet radio service – or GPRS – system, which gives access to more data. It is possible to share the data channel for snippets of information, which means that it costs less than a generation 2 phone. The generation 2.5 will be rolled out this year by firms such as BT Cellnet and Vodafone. The third generation phones are what all the fuss has been about, and the ones for which government has auctioned licences. Available in 2001, these will be able to deliver information such as video clips, but users will pay more for the increased capacity. The system operates on universal mobile telecommunications systems and will allow mobiles or palmtops to connect to the Internet and transmit data or images at high speed.